Part 3 of this meandering walkabout is below, discussing briefly my greatest hero…Part 4 will be along Sunday, and will hopefully be accompanied by some new microfiction as well.
Part 3 – Wherein the author continues to dally, but in a mostly-entertaining fashion
In November of 1985—and again in January of 1986—Stephen King was in a unique place, one never reached before (it has since been duplicated by J.K. Rowling, as the end of the Harry Potter series went to print and all the previous titles were re-released): he had 5 different books simultaneously on the New York Times Bestseller lists:
– The Bachman Books, in hardback, an omnibus collection of the four books King published under the Bachman pseudonym (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man), released shortly after Bachman’s true identity was publicly revealed.
– Skeleton Crew, in hardback, his latest collection of short stories
– The Talisman, in paperback, an epic fantasy tale and his first collaboration with Peter Straub
– The Bachman Books, in trade paperback, and
– Thinner, the final Bachman book, now listed under King’s name (in many cases with a sticker on the front cover
This was followed a few months later by the publication of IT, a 1,138-page opus that stands as one of the crowning achievements of his long career.
While his fans will prefer wildly different eras and aspects of his work—some preferring the no-frills, headlong pace of his early pure horror, some preferring the more measured and lyrical later work, some enjoying his high fantasy, or his short stories, or some combination in between—from 1985 to 1987, he was at the absolute peak of his success and popularity.
And to be honest, for about a decade there, from the early 80’s to the early 90’s, he was one of the 2 or 3 most successful, most popular, most influential artists in America, across all mediums. Right up there with Michael Jackson, Spielberg and…well, I’m not sure anyone else approached those rarified airs.
Odds are, if you bought at least two books in that decade, one of them was by Stephen King. Something like a billion copies of his books have been printed and sold worldwide…the only thing that’s sold more—over the course of a career—is the Bible.
Pretty heady space to live in. And if the crisis he survived through was typical for the times, the way he survived, and thrived, is anything but.
Let’s start with the more obvious challenges he faced. He was a hard partier, drinking and smoking at a volume that only poor English Lit majors from the Northeast can approach. He was on a liberal university campus at the end of the 1960’s, so add in all the requisite psychedelics that come part and parcel with room and board at that time. And once he started having success, Hollywood came calling. So add in unlimited nose candy and the expected small bottles of various pills to the nutritional listings on the side of his box.
That’s not a particularly good mental state to be in, not after a couple of years pursuing it non-stop with no financial barriers to indulgence. And especially not when your day job is writing—meaning tuning out the real world and zeroing in on that small inner voice whose only job is to speak dirty, unfiltered truth to you—stories about the absolute worst imaginable acts and situations that people could try to survive through (and often failed).
So, yeah, it might’ve been fun to spend Halloween or New Year’s hanging out with King, but I’m not sure I can imagine a darker spot to be than inside his head at 3AM, stuck in the purgatory between drunk/high/stoned, hungover and withdrawls, as he tries to work his way through an unfolding scene where one of his “heroes” has to commit some abominable act just to have a chance at surviving the events of the next few pages.
And then comes the follow-up punch.
I’m not sure any human being alive is as well read as Stephen King. There are stories from the people he knows, who love him, from his earliest days when he was first learning to read, of him walking around with his nose in a book, a second book in his back pocket, and stacks more waiting around every corner. I would bet an expensive dinner that, if you and he were to walk into any supersized bookstore, went to the fiction section, and took a book off the shelves at random, not only could he tell you what the book was about, and what he did and didn’t like about it, but could also tell you which of the author’s other works were worth checking out (if any), and 3 or 4 other authors of a similar style and intent that you’d also enjoy.
Some of it is obvious in the work he’s done throughout his career—and this is the point I’m slowly but surely getting to—but some of it is not. Yes, he’s read his Lovecraft, and Bradbury, and Matheson, and Poe, and probably several hundred paperback-only noir and genre fiction attempts a year, every year, since the 1950’s. But he’s also read his Joyce, and Dostoyevsky, and Proust, and Sartre, and Mailer, and Steinbeck, and Hemmingway…
During the peak of his popularity, there was no one, King most especially, who would have thought it proper, or even particularly sane, to use the word “literature” when describing one of King’s books…unless it was in the binary-negative, as in, “I know literature, and if King’s latest is anything, it’s not literature.” King was actually very upfront about it, calling himself the “Big Mac and Fries” of American letters, and speaking at length in interviews and essays about how he wasn’t trying to write literature, his goal was pure storytelling, increased adrenaline and heart rates, so it was no wonder that the literati didn’t find much to like in his books.
And you know, I think he almost believed it himself, but not entirely. Looking back, it sounds too much like the geek making fun of himself first, if only to head off the more biting comments from the popular kids and steal their thunder, hoping that when people laugh at him, because he was the one who said it, they’ll also be laughing a little bit with him.
It’s not like he didn’t know what “great literature” looked like; he did, and he loved it (and presumably still does). But as his success grew and grew, that delta between literature and his books had to be staring him in the face. Even the mentally-strongest amongst us, with all the financial and social trappings of success to bolster us, would have several late nights wondering if they would ever be able to trade in a spot on Entertainment Tonight for one on a stage in Oslo.
And as noted, King was hardly in the strongest state of mind then.
And then that other curse, the machinery of fame, began to chew away at him. A critic, in one of the typically-dismissive reviews of one of his books (by the mid 80’s, even the literati had to acknowledge that a new King book came out, no matter how much they ended up trashing it…that’s how big a deal each release was) said something along the lines of, “It’s likely that, were King to publish his grocery list, his adoring fans would still buy millions of copies.” And the phrase stuck.
Over the next several years, King was faced with the question that every artist whose success has gone from substantial to phenomenon has to answer: is it the work? Or am I just a brand name now, and it doesn’t matter what’s inside the covers as long as that four-letter word is on the front?
Can you imagine all of that, swirling about like some perfect mental storm: doubts about whether the work he’s doing—the work that consumes him and drives him every waking moment—matters to the people who buy it anymore…if not wishing, then at least wondering if something he writes will ever be celebrated by everyone, including the best and brightest amongst us, and not just by the borderline functionally illiterate in between their soap operas and fast food…and all of this without having been actually clean and sober for years?
So he started to break down a bit, and to try to fight through it in the only way he knew how: writing even more. His biggest push was to create a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, under whose name he could publish some of his less-mainstream work. And, more importantly, get his work out there, without the big four-letter word on the front, and see if people still responded to it. And after 4 mid-list paperback releases under the Bachman name, it appeared that it was the work after all: the hardback edition of Thinner, the last Bachman book, had sold 28,000 copies before its true author was unveiled; of course, after the reveal, there were over 3 millions copies in print, and the book spent 41 weeks on the bestseller lists.
His work also started to drift into new areas. During the early part of the 80’s, most of his work focused on parents and their children, and the magic and belief system that children live with every day, and that atrophies and dies when we become adults, and how, when that magic—particularly the dark side of it—suddenly appears in our every day adult lives, the only way to survive is to recapture some of that belief in magic that we had when we where children. It all culminated in IT, in which the main characters serve as both their own children and parents, depending on which timeline the story weaves through, and how we might be able to defeat the ultimate monster-under-the-bed.
But after IT, King’s work takes a noticeable turn into other areas. Misery, about a writer confronting his demons…and one very specific demon. The Tommyknockers, about two writers confronting their demons, both internal and external. The Dark Half, about, you guessed it, a writer confronting his internal demons, as they become external, and threaten not just him but his entire family…
It was around this time that the people who loved him intervened, and he began to seek treatment for his addictions. It was also around this time that he began to tie off loose ends—Needful Things, published in 1991, was the last “Castle Rock” novel, a phrase used to refer to a town, characters and continuity that had threaded through most of his work in the 80’s—and finally get to work on new things that would hopefully confirm his career as something more than a lucky literary pop-star, and answer those nagging questions that plagued him as his career reached its peak.
He rereleased The Stand, with almost 400 pages restored that had been cut from the original (due to printing costs, not editorial decisions)…one of the two biggest markers in his writing career was now complete, and presented in its full glory. He also wrote and published The Dark Tower III – The Waste Lands, the third installment of his Dark Tower saga, and the point at which the offbeat experimentation of the first two installments morphed into a real, long-form epic that might eventually have an ending in sight.
And his work began to be accepted as possibly more than fictional fast food. Instead of publishing new short stories in MF&SF or some similar genre magazine (though he never abandoned those markets completely), Playboy, Esquire and The New Yorker—the last bastions of hope in a world that seems determined to completely wipe out the short story—started to call, just to let him know that, hey, if you have something for us, great, if not, no worries, just let us know when and we’ll clear the pages for you.
He began to win awards that weren’t a result of fans calling a 1-800 number, culminating in the O. Henry award, given to the best short story of the year—decidedly not a genre award—in 1996 for The Man in the Black Suit.
And so the crisis seemed to have passed. His popularity had dimmed, but not entirely faded…his books were still events, and still sold exceptionally well, but there was little doubt anymore that people were buying them for what was inside the covers (for the most part, at least). “Serious” literary types were taking him, well, seriously…even the movie adaptations of his works—notably The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—weren’t just low-budget horror movies, but serious works of art, adapted faithfully, that were being nominated for multiple awards. The scare was still there in his stories, but there was also a relaxed, confident maturity, evident in works like Hearts in Atlantis and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, two books that serve as a creative entryway into his recent work.
He was even starting to think that the lessons he had learned over the years might be worth sharing. Some of it may have been penny-dreadful, some of it may have aspired much higher, but whatever it was, he enjoyed writing it, people enjoyed reading it, and it was lasting longer than anyone probably expected it to. So maybe it was time to sit down and write about the writing that he’d done.
And so came about On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. There’s an interesting story behind that one, and a few more chapters in King’s life so far—including the introduction of a particularly careless van, and the conclusion of a saga that took 30 years to write—but it’s at this point that we’re going to jump off the external timelines and finally get to the core of the matter, the reason that we’ve been taking this trip from the start: the story of your humble author, and how I’ve come from copying Encyclopedia Brown stories down word-for-word to writing this particular long-form essay.
Part 4 – Wherein the author finally gets down to brass tacks, and tries to describe what it’s like to step on your grandmother’s throat while reaching for the brass ring…and then missing it.